Previously adopted around the world in the aftermath of hurricanes, earthquakes and massive forest fires, emergency remote teaching (ERT) online made a widespread appearance in Canadian elementary schools during three months of national school closures in the spring of 2020. The cause of the shutdown was the COVID-19 global pandemic. ERT is “a temporary shift” of instructional delivery to an alternate mode due to crisis circumstances. It bears some resemblance to the well-established instructional approach known as “online learning,” but it is a pale imitation of it. It does not take advantage of the highly developed, systematic, time-consuming, thoroughly researched model of instructional design used to develop effective online learning (Hodges, Moore, Lockee, Trust, & Bond, 2020).
By the summer of 2020, Alberta, British Columbia, New Brunswick, Ontario, and Saskatchewan had outlined specific plans and standards for ERT (Nagle, LaBonte, & Barbour, 2020). In Ontario, the Ministry of Education (MOE) formalized emergency remote teaching when it released its eight-page Policy/Program Memorandum No. 164 (PPM 164). PPM 164 establishes a framework for emergency remote learning during public health emergencies, natural disasters, and other unplanned events that force the closure of classrooms or schools. PPM 164 sets out standards for engaging students, synchronous learning, delivering remote learning, synchronous (real-time) learning platforms, access to devices and the internet, cybersecurity, privacy, and online safety. It establishes an exemption process from synchronous learning (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2020; Nagle, LaBonte, & Barbour, 2020). Three of the provinces, Alberta, British Columbia, and Ontario, provided families with the option of remote learning from home for the duration of the school year. Ontario, for example, directed its school boards to provide remote learning through the creation of virtual schools, develop standards for their operation, permitted them to delay their opening by approximately two weeks, and insisted that teachers transitioning to remote teaching receive some training (Nagle, LaBonte, & Barbour, 2020).
The rapid establishment of virtual elementary schools (VES) in provinces such as Ontario and the formalization of ERT heralded a period of exceptionally rapid change for administrators, educators, students, and families alike. Authors Jake Bryant, Li-Kai Chen, Emma Dorn, and Stephen Hall have described how this type of “scaling up remote learning can happen quickly,” but emphasize that the process “requires constant monitoring” to track implementation. They underline the need for continuous adjustment for improvement in response to ongoing feedback (Bryant, Chen, Dorn, & Hall, 2020). The Ontario Ministry of Education has tried to build this tracking and adjustment process into PPM 164. It stipulates that school districts must provide data about the school year by July 31 of each year in which periods of remote learning occur. It also directs school boards to adjust their implementation of PPM 164 based on parent, student, and staff feedback collected throughout the school year (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2020). It is questionable whether large provincial education systems are nimble enough to scale up remote learning without unintended consequences. In Ontario alone, there are 60 district school boards, 3,948 elementary schools, 85,400 full-time equivalent (FTE) elementary teaching positions, 5,453 elementary principals, and 1.4 million elementary students (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2019).
To date, little data has been collected on the effect of the new reality of formalized ERT and VES teaching assignments on elementary teachers, most of whom are new to remote teaching. This article reports on the quantitative results of an anonymous, online survey of elementary teachers in one, mid-sized Ontario school district about their perceptions of the impact of remote teaching on their lives and on student learning.
The data was collected between January 30 and February 23, 2021, from two private, members-only social media sites. The sites are dedicated to 2,095 elementary contract and elementary occasional teachers in two local bargaining units of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO). The membership consists of approximately 1,380 contract and 715 occasional (substitute) Kindergarten to Grade 8 elementary school teachers employed by one mid-sized Ontario school district. The group includes approximately 160 full-time equivalent teaching positions
(1.0 FTE) – approximately 300 full-time and part-time teachers – working in a virtual elementary school (VES). At the time of the survey, the majority of the teachers in this school district would have had only three to five weeks of emergency remote teaching experience from January 4 to February 12.
Survey participants were presented with seven statements about the impact of remote teaching on aspects of their lives and two statements about its impact on their teaching and student learning. They were asked whether they strongly agreed, agreed, disagreed, strongly disagreed, or were neutral concerning the statements. They were also asked to rate the impact of remote teaching on each criterion on a scale of 1 (no impact) to 5 (considerable impact) and to describe its impact in words. They provided a wide variety of demographic information, ranging from gender,
marital/partnership status, number of children in their households to total years of teaching experience and current teaching assignment. The sample of 190 respondents was demographically varied. The number of completed surveys represents 9.07% of the total number of teachers under study. The sample size has a margin of error of approximately 7% with a confidence level of 95%, meaning the results can vary by as much as +/- 7%.
The results indicate that the overwhelming majority of the 190 Ontario elementary teachers who filled out the questionnaire, 181 to be exact, perceive that teaching remotely in a virtual elementary school or doing emergency remote teaching (ERT) as it is currently structured has a significant and/or considerable impact on seven out of nine variables. The self-report findings suggest that on average remote teaching has the most impact on their emotional health and stress level, their teaching workload, their physical health, and their relationships and families. (See Table 1.) Specifically, more than nine-tenths of the survey respondents strongly disagreed or disagreed with statements that remote teaching “has no impact” on their emotional health and level of stress (94.7%), their workload (93.7%), and their physical health (91.3%). More than three quarters strongly disagreed or disagreed with the statement that remote teaching has no impact on their families and relationships (81.6%), their household workload (78.4%), the quality of teaching (75.8%), and the quality of learning of students (73.1%). (See Table 1.)
Slightly more than half of the questionnaire participants disagreed with the statement that there is “no impact” from remote teaching on their household expenditures (52.6%). The 20.0% who agreed that there is an impact on their household expenditures reported purchasing educational materials, furniture, or new technology to support remote teaching. Another fifth of the respondents (21.6%), disagreed that remote teaching has no impact on their annual income. The group included Occasional (substitute) Teachers, restricted to teaching in a limited number of schools, as well as those taking unanticipated leaves-of-absence or retiring earlier than expected Slightly less than half (44.7%) of those surveyed felt otherwise. They agreed that remote teaching had no impact on their annual income.
The survey participants were asked to quantify the impact of remote teaching on 9 elements of their lives by rating the impact on a 5-point scale from 1 (no impact) to 5 (considerable impact). The teacher ratings are consistent with their reactions to the nine statements presented to them. The percentages of respondents who rated the impact on these categories as significant (4) or considerable (5) were almost identical to the responses in Table 1, usually within one or two percentage points.
Analysis of Emergency Remote Teachers Versus Virtual School Teachers
Since that the survey sample is fundamentally composed of two groups engaged in two different types of remote teaching, VES teachers and ERT for 3 or 5 weeks, it seemed logical to compare the results for these two groups. The data for each group were analyzed across the nine variables. (See Table 2.) Since the VES teacher sample is relatively small (61 of 160 x 1.0 FTE respondents), even though it represents approximately one-third (38.1%) of the VES 1.0 FTE equivalent positions, the results should be interpreted cautiously because the small sample size could make them less reliable. A greater number of VES teachers rated the effect of remote teaching remarkably higher on their workload (96.7%) and their emotional health and stress level (98.2%) than their in-person colleagues. An overwhelming majority in both groups, an almost identical percentage in each group, indicated that remote teaching had a significant impact on their physical health (i.e., VES teachers 91.8% and in-person teachers 91.5%). (See Table 2.)
Three Measures of Workload Compared
Data on three measures of workload were also compared. The measures were the respondents’ average rating on a scale of 1 to 5 (1 is no impact and 5 is considerable) of remote teaching’s impact on their workload, their reports of their estimated average daily work hours (weekends excluded), and their agreement/disagreement with the statement that remote teaching “has no impact” on their workload. In all 3 categories, those teaching in Virtual Elementary Schools reported that remote teaching had a noticeably higher degree of impact on their workload: 4.6/5 compared to 4.5; 11.5 hours per day versus 10.8; and agreement with workload statement 96.7% as opposed to 92.4%. A few VES teachers reported that the learning curve for virtual school teaching is composed of “months of working 60 hours per week.” A second teacher described 10-plus hour workdays as the norm. A typical day included planning for multiple subjects for a combined class and six modified students, teaching 225 minutes online, giving feedback to students, talking to and answering questions from parents from early morning to late evening: “It’s sad that good teachers who have an exemplary record are being pushed to the brink of exhaustion with no support.”
There are many reasons for implementing emergency remote learning. The importance of staying connected to teachers and peers for children’s mental health during school closures has been documented (Public Health Ontario, 2020). Equity is another consideration. Students who come from well-resourced families tend to fare much better during school closures than those from lower-resourced families. Public education can help reduce these inequities (The BC Centre for Disease Control & BC Children’s Hospital, 2020). However, the fact that 181 survey respondents believe that remote teaching has a notable effect on their workload is deeply concerning and gives pause for consideration. (See Tables 1 and 2.) The survey results chronicle the struggles and concerns of Ontario public elementary school teachers with emergency remote teaching and virtual school teaching. They paint a portrait of employees overwhelmed by unfamiliar technology, constant change, information overload, untenable workloads, and feelings of isolation and abandonment by the education system. This situation cannot be good for students, families, and teachers, or public education in general.
There are a variety of solutions for reducing the impact of emergency remote teaching and VES teaching assignments on staff that merely require educational authorities to view ERT as an entirely new creature – something other than the wholesale transference of physical school to an online platform. As part of the survey, teachers made numerous suggestions about how to improve remote teaching and learning for the benefit of students and to ease teacher workload. They reported a need for more technological training, digital educational resources for students, planning time, teacher autonomy to determine how much time to spend live online with students, the flexibility to spend the majority of their time with struggling students, more instructional technology support for families, standardization of apps, video conferencing platforms, and other technology, increased professional development for online learning design, implementation, assessment, and evaluation, relief from administrative tasks such as report cards and attendance tracking, assistance contacting absent families, increased support for students with special education needs, and greater assistance with problem-solving.
The crushing impact of ERT and VES on teachers can be mitigated in another manner. The data on the effect of school closures indicates that there is no need to rush to scale up emergency remote learning and launch virtual schools. John Hattie’s effect size research on school closures during strikes and natural disasters indicates that up to ten (10) weeks of school shutdown has little or no effect on learning loss, especially for students in Kindergarten to Grade 6 (Hattie, 2020), although there is also evidence to the contrary (Kuhfeld et al. 2020).
ERT can be implemented rapidly and successfully for the benefit of students without adversely affecting educators. Researchers have described the process in detail (Bryant, Chen, Dorn, & Hall, 2020). Given ERT’s impact on teachers documented in this article, future elementary school remote teaching should be implemented much more thoughtfully at a much slower pace, in a series of phased upgrades e.g., connect with families, organize families for home learning, connect with children, connect with children online and see to their emotional well-being. Academic instruction can wait ten weeks.References
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Hattie, J. (2020). Visible Learning Effect Sizes When Schools Are Closed: What Matters and What Does Not. Corwin Connect. Retrieved online from https://corwin-connect.com/2020/04/visible-learning-effect-sizes-when-schools-are-closed-what-matters-and-what-does-not/
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Edward Schroeter, B.J., B.Ed., OCT, has worked for Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board since 1992. A Kindergarten Teacher specializing in early geometry, spatial sense, and coding, is the Lead Writer – Grade One for the Ontario Mathematics Curriculum Resource Project (2020-21) and the author of 55 Activities Promoting Spatial Visualization and Orientation (2019) and Nelson Math Grade K (2018).